Travelling to Utopia and back

Cao Fei
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane
2 May – 27 June, 2009

[Highly Commended for the 2009 Frieze Writers’ Prize judges were James Elkins, Ali Smith & Jennifer Higgie]


Cao Fei’s Utopia is both a place and a non-place. It is a daydream, a fiction and a collective longing. Then again, it has three rooms, it has light projected on walls and captured on photographic paper, and it can be arrived at through a winding labyrinth of gallery spaces at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art. A joint project with Artspace in Auckland, this is the young Chinese artist’s first solo exhibition in Australasia, and it includes work made over a number of years in a variety of media: photography, film and virtual architecture.

Its first sited play between the imaginary and the real is a video projection, Whose Utopia (2006), which takes us into a light bulb factory in the Pearl River Delta. Fluorescent tubes, ordinary globes and miniature halogens dance and whirl with mechanical grace, revealing a hundred tiny movements and component parts. Already, these are no longer the inert, mute objects we switch on and off each day. As workers faces and hands begin to appear, sorting and pushing and hovering as machine-like as possible, we can begin to see the outlines of a narrative around these ubiquitous everyday things that travel to us from so many miles away. As Part II begins, a pair of French tourists sits down beside me and offer popcorn; on screen a lilting piano accompanies the workers surreally performing their personal fantasies on the factory floor, individuals now with their own spreading stories and dreams. Amongst rows of mechanical arms and the continuing rhythms of factory life, they twirl in tutus, play rock star guitar and breakdance in slow-motion. With a yearning whistle, Part III brings portraits of the workers back in their monotonous surrounds, still and expressionless, and staring directly back at us over karaoke words to lulling Indie pop that keeps asking elusively ‘and to whom … do you … beautifully … belong’ long after I’ve left the gallery.

Fei is based between Beijing and her hometown of Guangzhou. Part of an emerging generation of artists born after the more dramatic episodes in China’s communist past, her work inspects the disparities and inconsistencies of the new China, as experienced by ordinary citizens inhabiting a rapidly changing industrialised urban landscape. Whose Utopia comes from a broader project shown at the 2006 Biennale of Sydney, What are you doing here? (2006), in which Fei spent time interviewing the factory employees, making and distributing a newspaper, Utopia Daily, and organising the creation of theatrical performances and installations by (and for) the workers and their families. Rural immigrants with little control over their lives are thus introduced to a different kind of production, one in which their answers to questions like ‘where is your dream’ and ‘what is your utopia’ can ricochet to places as far flung as here.

In the next room, a series of large photographs, UN-Cosplayers (2006), depict figures dressed in the outlandish costumes of fictional characters from pop-culture, embedded (or abandoned) in the stage set of ‘ordinary’ street life. As with her 2004 film COSplayers, this series draws on the contemporary phenomena of cosplay (role-playing in costume) as a form of reimagining both individual identity and the often dehumanised environments we inhabit. In this instance the ‘players’ are older Beijing residents, and the scenes they animate have an eerie quietness – traditional hutong buildings have been reduced to rubble or piled with garbage, empty swathes of road stretch out beneath high-rises. In front, hybrid superheroes pose theatrically with borrowed props (a light-sabre, a laser blaster, a pick-axe), sometimes leaping on rooves or crouching through their built surroundings as though in a video game. Spiderman pops up again and again; in one photograph meeting himself in the way that new players in Second Life must use a standard ‘avatar’ (a fantasy self) also worn by others. In Housebreaker (2006), a Star Wars stormtrooper in electric blue bodysuit wields a shovel before a handful of bemused bystanders, one pauses his bicycle, another looks up from his newspaper; a third turns out to be the unidentified character from a different photograph, his shiny yellow suit and cap recalling some kind of comic wise-man from Monkey Magic. These images are saturated with colour, poised at a moment of stilled tension between crushing reality and a craving for transcendence that is itself pilfered and re-made from imported consumerist visual culture.

From this fractured fantasy of Beijing, the final place I am transported to is, quite naturally, the virtual world of Second Life – the digital heartland of dreams and desire – where Fei has constructed an entire metropolis on the Creative Commons island of Kula under her avatar ‘China Tracy’. RMB City (2008) is encountered here in ‘real space’ as a fly-through video swooping and diving on a rollercoaster tour of the heaving city amidst remodelled icons of Chinese culture and urban life. A huge bicycle wheel spins industriously, factory chimneys pump out flames, flying commuter trains zoom past, and a panda and the new CCTV headquarters swing off either end of a floating crane. Tiananmen square is a leisurely swimming pool, vehicles disappear into and out of tunnels, but there is a curious absence of people. Though wild and fantastical, the experience explodes with physical, felt fiction in every direction, a tumbling sensation akin to my own half-remembered dreams of flying over water. I want to ask, ‘how does this world work?’ ‘Who lives here?’ ‘Is it better than ours?’ ‘what kind of futures are we dreaming of?”.

On my way out towards mangrove-scented air, I pass the words ‘my future is not a dream’ flickering on the wall in the first room. Utopia is always a dream, but futures must eventually be lived. Circling this imaginary territory to re-inscribe the complexities of human desire onto the socio-political (and architectural) landscapes we occupy from Guangzhou to Brisbane, Fei opens up new ways we might conceptualise and orient our potential shared futures. How we get there is another story.

Image credit: Cao Fei, Housebreaker, 2006. Image from

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